Fighting in the Real World

by Maj Kenneth F. McKenzie, Jr.

. . . courses of action are wargamed using the enemy situation predicted by the intelligence preparation of the battlefield. Critical decision points are identified based on key events that support synchronization and mission execution.

FMFM-3, Command and Control

Through an evolutionary doctrinal process, the Marine Corps is reestablishing the primacy of the Marine air-ground task force (MAGTF) command element (CE) as the principal warfighting headquarters at all levels of the air-ground team. Concurrently, the Corps has introduced a body of techniques and procedures grouped under the umbrella heading of synchronization, all designed to more effectively implement the principles of our maneuver warfare doctrine. Few challenge the reassertion of the MAGTF CE’s primacy. On the other hand, some critics have expressed concern over the introduction of synchronization principles as enabling tools for maneuver warfare.

There seem to be two general schools of criticism. William S. Lind, an early proponent of the maneuver warfare concept, holds that the concept of synchronization categorically is incompatible with maneuver warfare. In the October 1993 Marine Carps Gazette, he says, “Intelligence preparation of the battlefield, battlefield operating systems, and battlefield activities, etc., all flow logically from synchronization, which is to say they are all incompatible with maneuver warfare.” A second criticism seems to be based simply on the fact that, originally, synchronization was an Army concept, thus insufficiently naval in outlook.

Maneuver warfare is the doctrine of the Marine Corps. It provides broad guidance and a rationale for our style of combat. In brief, it is part of our Service culture. On the other hand, synchronization is not a doctrine, but is rather the umbrella principle associated with a number of techniques and procedures first introduced by the Army in AirLand Battle in 1982. These procedures include intelligence preparation of the battlefield, the battlefield activities, and battlefield geometry. The crux of the issue is this: Do these techniques and procedures support maneuver warfare, or do they destroy it from below, by introducing irreconcilable contradictions?

In order to examine this issue, it is necessary to look at synchronization in light of our own maneuver warfare doctrine, as outlined in FMFM 1, Warfighting; FMFM 1-1, Campaigning; FMFM 1-3, Tactics; and FMFM 3, Command and Control By defining synchronization, placing it in historical perspective, including the charge that synchronization is the French methodical battle recast, one can gain insights beyond the rhetoric and superficial political opposition to an Army concept. In fact, synchronization can be a powerful tool for the commander, and one we can use to answer our own unique Marine requirements.

Maneuver Warfare

As outlined in FMFM 1 maneuver warfare is the Corps’ broad operational concept for how and, most importantly, why we fight the way we do. FMFM 1 describes an environment of friction, uncertainty, fluidity, and disorder. To achieve success in this environment, two principles are key: concentration and speed. “Rapid, flexible, and opportunistic maneuver” is used to gain a relative advantage over an opponent who is struggling within the same chaotic environment. The target is more the foe’s cohesion than the material integrity of his forces.

Written in a clear, straightforward style, FMFM 1 and its companions on campaigning and tactics provided a brilliant foundation for subsequent refinement of supporting procedures, techniques, and tactics. The development and implementation of synchronization concepts is the first real attempt to build on this foundation in a formal sense.

What Is Synchronization?

Synchronization is the integration of combat, combat support, and combat service support systems in time and space to obtain a sum of combat power that is greater than the simple addition of individual parts. It is a body of techniques and procedures that support our style of combat. LtGen John H. Cushman, USA(Ret), writes in the July 1993 Naval Institute Proceedings that

. . . synchronization is supposed to mean bringing to bear at one time and place the combined power of maneuver, artillery, air, deception, and other means so as to strike the enemy again and again with massed power greater than the sum of all the parts. It is the essence of combined-arms teamwork.

Commanders at all levels synchronize their efforts to accomplish the mission. At the strategic level, the elements of national power-economics, diplomacy, and military strength-are integrated. At the operational and tactical levels, commanders work within the construct of a coherent set of functions intended to optimize the interplay of the various elements of warfighting power. These are collectively called “battlefield activities” in the Marine Corps, and “operating systems” in the Army.* At Officer Candidates School, candidates learn to establish a base of fire on an objective and to shift and then lift it on signal. They arrange for the displacement of the supporting fire team forward and conduct resupply and reorganization on the objective. At the lowest level, this is the synchronization of fire, maneuver, and logistics-a structure that operates within the chaos and friction of the battlefield.

Coordination and synchronization are not synonymous; there is instead a hierarchical relationship. The commander’s intent and concept of operations outlines his synchronization: what he envisions doing with his fire, maneuver, logistics, intelligence, and other activities. This directs vertical and lateral coordination, which then becomes a tool to attain an end-the coherent application of combat power. In situations where there are more opportunities than assets, broad synchronization will focus and enhance limited combat power. As a general principle, synchronization springs from the commander’s concept of the battle. As noted in the Army’s 1992 draft FM 101-5, it creates a “critical path of concentration and priorities,” defining the main effort. Here, a danger must be seen and avoided: This path must not become a one-way street that brooks no deviations. In the largest sense, synchronization is an ongoing analytic process that provides a methodology for shaping, not scripting, efforts within the chaotic environment of combat.

By design, synchronization is not time-driven; instead, it is event-driven and anticipatory. Critics who argue that synchronization treats men like “stopwatches,” and ties all maneuver units to the pace of the slowest, like yoked oxen, simply do not understand its essence, which is the integration of functional battlefield activities, a much broader and deeper process than merely issuing movement orders. Nor does synchronization imply the lockstep massing of forces. Instead, it envisions possible paths to obtain decisive mass and tempo at the proper time and place. Critics of synchronization are actually-and rightly-attacking scripting, which is an attempt to choreograph action with a rigid timeline. Attempts to link actions on the battlefield to time almost universally fail.

Synchronization can be abused to manifest both a “dress right” approach to maneuver and a rigid timetable. Today, some believe that in the Army there is evidence that the process of synchronization may subordinate critical thought and the role of the commander as decisionmaker to a rigid ballet of execution that cannot deal with a fluid battlefield. If true, this is a valid criticism. In the Marine Corps, the overarching culture of maneuver warfare will prevent this. The greatest threat to synchronization is a commander who is unable to accept uncertainty as his handmaiden in battle.

Conceptually, synchronization is counterpoised against agility and initiative. This dynamic tension is created by the conflict between what is planned and what actually happens. Tension like this is inherently good, and a robust tactical doctrine will always feature a contrast between order and understanding on one hand and initiative on the other.* Reconciling these competing imperatives, each of which is fully justifiable within its own particular logic, is T. E. Lawrence’s “kingfisher flash,” the essence of the operational art.

The commander holds two competing ideas in his mind as he plans and executes combat operations: on the one hand, order, understanding, control, and the lure of certainly; on the other, creativity, spontaneity, and the uncertainty of opportunity. The ability to reconcile these concepts effectively over time varies from commander to commander, but ongoing synchronization makes it easier to define critical issues and expedite decisions. This balancing test is at the center of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s observation that the best test of intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in one’s mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.

Through the medium of commander’s intent, a plan’s “branches” are developed during the planning and wargaming process, preparing units for possible rapid changes in situation, mission, and status. Concurrently, potential “sequels” are identified that enable the staff and commander to coordinate battlefield activities for future operations. The entropic nature of combat will challenge all plans, but a planning and analysis structure that recognizes the inevitability of change will be able to accommodate these occurrences. Commanders must recognize that fleering opportunities will arise, requiring immediate and perhaps unanticipated action (e.g., recon pull).

Commanders direct battlefield activities in order to carry out tactical plans. As events unfold, the tactical situation will erode the initial synchronization of effort, and the commander will have to adapt to new and ever-changing situations. However, the recognition that battle is a dynamic, chaotic activity is part of the synchronization process.

How Intelligence Preparation of the Battlefield (IPB) Fits In

The commander is aided in rapidly reassessing and modifying plans by his IPB, a process that has continued since before the operation began. In close collaboration between the commander and his operations, intelligence, and logistics officers, the battlefield is subjected to an exhaustive terrain analysis, with particular attention being paid to mobility corridors, key terrain, and chokepoints. Applied to this is a doctrinal template of how the enemy may choose to fight, based upon his doctrine and the terrain. From these two elements comes the situational template, an analysis based on the factors of mission, enemy, terrain, troops-time, or METT-T. It is updated constantly throughout the fight. Typically, commanders seek to know the most likely and the most dangerous enemy courses of action.

As part of this ongoing effort, a variety of information, decision, and execution aids are created, based upon the commander’s intent and the concept of operations. These aids, all designed to enable rapid adjustment of the commander’s vision of the unfolding battle, provide and organize quantitatively. Often, the situation precludes the development of all IPB products, forcing the commander to prioritize his requirements. In any event, the products of IPB are less important than the IPB process, whose purpose is to maintain a relentless focus on the enemy.

IPB requires intimate interaction between the operations, intelligence, and logistics officers and must be coordinated by the commander. It is particularly useful in wargaming potential courses of action, both enemy and friendly, during the development and execution of a plan and lends itself to rapid, continual updates as the situation changes. IPB helps to identify opportunities for decisive friendly maneuver, while tightening the observation-orientation-decision-action loop through continual analyses of enemy options. It cannot be a substitute for the commander’s decision, reached through analysis and the spark of intuition, but it can help make his decision an informed and rapid one.

Is Synchronization the Methodical Battleand What Is Methodical Battle?

Critics of synchronization often argue that it is only the French bataille conduite or methodical battle of the interwar years expressed with modern weapons. The doctrine of methodical battle reflected two French lessons from World War 1: the dominance of the defense, and the superiority of fire over movement. It was spawned in the peculiar culture of a victorious French military establishment, revolted by the casualties of 1914-1918.

In the 1920s and 30s, this doctrine deemphasized maneuver, controlling it with rigid phase lines, elaborate reporting procedures, and the centralization of virtually all assets under higher level commanders. Attacks were conducted in phases, each defined by the establishment of a mathematically modeled density of artillery. It was above all a cautious, defensively oriented doctrine, one that reflected France’s grisly experience in World War I and her limited manpower pool. It was further compounded by the fact that the exposed location of her critical industrial areas and mineral fields forced her to fight on the frontiers. Politically, the Army could not afford to surrender the ground necessary to create maneuver opportunities.

As new weapons of greater range and mobility were introduced in the 1930s, the French Army forced them to fit the methodical battle model, rather than changing doctrine to encompass the new technology. The French Army rejected the German World War I success of infiltration tactics, believing the latter attributable to the use of elite formations and refusing to credit them as an idea worth copying. The methodical battle was a style of war ready-made to be ravaged by the decentralized execution. rapidity, and shock of formations such as Guderian’s XIX Corps, which spearheaded the German breakthrough with a synchronized attack at Sedan.

The methodical battle is not synchronization, at least in the Marine usage of the term. They cannot fairly be compared. Methodical battle was a philosophy of war inextricably wedded to the defense, firepower, and resistant to rapid, decentralized maneuver. Synchronization in the Marine Corps context encompasses a set of techniques and procedures designed to enhance performance within the chaotic battlefield envisioned by the philosophy of maneuver warfare.

More akin to the methodical battle was the U.S. Army’s “active defense” of the 1970s-the predecessor of maneuver warfare and AirLand Battle. The methodical battle and the active defense both embraced concentration, the supremacy of the defense, and centralized control. Maneuver warfare was, and is, a reaction to just this view of combat.

The Real World

What does all this mean for Marines? Wars are not fought in sterile, academic settings. Military forces today must deal with not only the factors of METT-T, but also very real political considerations that promise to intrude to even the lowest tactical levels. This may not be good, but it is a fact of life. Not all engagements are fought on terrain like a billiard table, where freewheeling gnostics can implement frictionless plans in an airy, structureless environment. There are limitations that operate on even the most profound genius. In the real world, synchronization is a method that will identify potential limitations and possible work-arounds.

For Marine forces operating from the sea, in immature theaters with minimal infrastructure, synchronization concepts may prove to be very useful in a number of areas, particularly in the realm of logistics. We are a force that must integrate amphibious assault forces, maritime prepositioning ships, and strategic airlift into a coherent plan. The limiting actor in many littoral operations will be our ability to supply the landing force ashore, while standing up prepositioned equipment with its troops. Synchronization will identify limiting factors, and suggest alternatives, not only as part of the planning process but also in execution.

Marines are pragmatic people. To us doctrine is not theology, we are agnostics, tending to shun a comprehensive doctrinal structure and opting for whatever seems to work best for a particular situation. In maneuver warfare we have a concept for fighting, a clear philosophical paradigm within which to operate. But philosophy, however clear and lucid, cannot in and of itself provide all the conceptual ammunition a large military organization needs to fight. Too much structure leads to dogma, thus choking initiative; yet doctrinal anorexia-a studied disdain for the tools of doctrine-can also be dangerous. Appropriate tools, techniques, and procedures to give shape to maneuver warfare doctrine are found in synchronization, IPB, battlefield activities, battlefield geometry, and their allied concepts.

These concepts, however, do not represent a philosophy themselves, rather a body of procedures that support the commander within the mission-orders, high-tempo world of maneuver warfare. Synchronization is ideally suited to support maneuver warfare, if practiced by thinking, skeptical Marines who do not become slaves to the process and maintain the spark of intuition and aggressiveness that no system of war can provide. Command in war is and will remain an art.

There is no reason to shun ideas merely because they originate elsewhere-a second criticism of synchronization. Using this strange proprietary logic, it was wrong for the Marine Corps to scour the Pacific battlefields after World War II, bringing vast quantities of formerly Army equipment to Barstow-equipment that proved vital in Korea. There’s no natural law that says that all good ideas must come from within the Marine Corps; we should get them wherever they are found and adapt them to our own purposes.

The introduction of synchronization concepts into our doctrine of maneuver warfare is helpful, not hurtful. When applied with perspective, avoiding the extremist positions on both sides of the argument that demand an “all or nothing” approach, synchronization becomes a powerful enabling tool that translates the ideas of maneuver warfare into procedures and techniques that can be used in the real world: the world of friction, violence, and uncertainty. In this world, even Moltkean geniuses must grapple with sleep deprivation, chemical protection gear, “the reasonable promptings of fear,” and the death of comrades, all while controlling the levers of an increasingly complex machine. To reject synchronization categorically is to invite a judgment pronounced on the French Army in World War II: “. . . too pedantic, too theoretical, and not practical enough; their doctrine was more suited for the classroom than for the battlefield.”*


*The MEF has seven battlefield activities: command and control, maneuver, engineer operations, aviation, fires, intelligence, and combat service support.

*Wayne P. Hughes, Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 1986. p. 29.

*Robert A. Doughty, The Seeds of Disaster: The Development of French Army Doctrine, 1919-1939. Archon Books, Hamden, CT, 1985. p. 187.